Strength, Accuracy, and Speed

If you’re the type of musician who just likes to grab your instrument and start playing without much analysis of techniques, you probably won’t get much from this post. It’s a very in-depth look at what you are really asking of your hands when you ask them to play music.

It’s also from the perspective of someone who had the ‘opportunity’ of lying on my back for some time while I recovered the use of the left side of my body. As you can imagine, I did a lot of thinking, planning, analyzing, and ruminating on how we actually do things with our hands and how our muscles can possibly relate to the messages coming from our brain.

That’s when I started to realize this general fact:

All physical skills can be condensed into three qualities:
strength, accuracy, and speed.

Banjo Practice

Banjo Practice, by Phill Gibson

When a stroke occurs in the brain, in a way, it loses the directions on how to find, say, your hands and fingers. It also forgets how far away they are and how long it takes to send and receive a message, not unlike when you ping an IP address. Lastly, it also forgets how much ‘signal’ to send in order to affect a certain amount of response, or strength.

Here’s an example. Say you want to play a chord on a stringed instrument. After lifting and slightly rotating your arm, you tell your hand and fingers to start moving into a predefined set of positions. Each finger position is different for each chord. Whether you’re playing a simple chord with no vamping sliding or other added techniques, or you’re playing something with those fretting-hand techniques, you are asking your hands and fingers to:

  1. Apply enough pressure onto the string to cleanly press the string onto the fret, yet not enough to make it painful to your finger tip. This is strength.
  2. Apply this place of contact with the string/fretboard combination with an accuracy of better than about 1 millimeter, with absolutely no room for corrections after the placement has been made. This is accuracy.
  3. Apply this combination of strength and accuracy in a variable amount of time, which often includes doing it in a fraction of a second, depending on the technique and tempo of the song. This is speed. Oh, and that’s just one finger! You need to multiply that complexity by a factor of 2 to 4, because…
  4. Do all of this simultaneously with as many fingers as is required, usually two to four fingers on the fretting hand for a simple chord.

So from that perspective, doing anything on the fretboard seems a daunting task! But looking at everything in terms of those three qualities also helps you isolate and refine whatever the issue is.

Here’s another example. When I was trying to get back the ability to form decent chords after my stroke, I found that I could make much better progress if I examined what I was (or wasn’t) doing and categorize it as one of these three qualities.

  1. If it was strength, that meant that I was either not pressing hard enough (usually the case) or maybe pressing too hard and my finger tip was screaming for me to stop because it was painful. My solution was to go over, and over, and over that one application of pressure. I would also have to make sure the muscles in play also have had enough exercise so that they were capable of doing simple tasks normally. The gym had one of these unusual hand exercisers in a basket of miscellaneous gadgets and I found it very worthwhile to exercise my hand and fingers. Here it is at Amazon:
  2. For accuracy, it was really easy to tell; just listen to the chord. Usually, ill-formed chords were the result of poor accuracy. You can also guess the solution: extreme repetition, emphasizing exact, instant positioning of each individual finger, then all fingers together. 
  3. For speed, well, here I’m not talking as much about breakdown-speed banjo breaks as much as just the speed it takes to move your fingers in simple fashion for basic tasks (such as forming chords) in a reasonable amount of time (basic speed, I’ll call it). Fast speed will come along just as it did the first time: gradually, and with much diligence and practice. For basic speed, I practiced my strength and accuracy with an eye towards simply making it a habit once again so that I had the smallest of movements in my muscle memory. At that point and with a relaxed touch, basic speed did indeed start to improve.

So that is a very in-depth look at the details of how I made progress with regaining my banjo playing ability after my stroke. It was a long process, it was not very pleasant, and I still have some way to go to get back to where I was, but by delving into analysis of such minute points of execution, it did the trick! 

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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